John Boyd Conceptual Spiral

John Boyd delivered this Conceptual Spiral presentation to an audience at Maxwell Air Force Base in the mid-1990s.

The audience was provided handouts containing:

(see for more documents)

He opens by saying together what they really represent is basically a foundation for vitality and growth or in a more formal sense, a foundation for comprehending, shaping, and adapting in an unfolding evolving reality that is uncertain, ever-changing, and unpredictable.

Some highlights:


“If I have an adversary out there, what I want to do is: I want to fold my adversary back inside himself, so he can’t really consult the external environment he has to deal with. If I can do that, then I can drive him into confusion and disorder and bring about paralysis.”


Grand Message slide (p 14):
“…not only do the statements representing a theoretical system for explaining some aspect of reality explain that reality inadequately or incompletely but, like it or not, these statements spill out beyond any one system and do so in unpredictable ways”

“Any coherent intellectual or physical systems we evolve to represent or deal with large portions of reality will at best represent or deal with that reality incompletely or imperfectly.”


Slide 25:
“…without the intuitive interplay of analyses and synthesis, we have no basic process for generating novelty, no basic process for addressing mismatches between our mental images/impressions and the reality they are supposed to represent, and no basic process for reshaping our orientation toward that reality as it undergoes change.”


He refers to a book called Theories of Everything by John D. Barrow (Barrow has since published New Theories of Everything. In it, he writes, “we recognize science to be the search for algorithmic compressions.”)

Boyd says, “What you want to do to your adversary is make his world incompressible, so all he’s dealing with is pandemonium, chaos, confusion, and disorder, and then you sweep out the debris. In other words, you want to fold him back inside himself. So, you make his world incompressible, he naturally gets folded back inside himself, because he can’t cope with the world, so in effect then he comes up with all those dysfunction characteristics you like to have in your adversary.”


Slide 33:
“…we must continue the whirl of reorientation, mismatches, analyses/synthesis over and over again ad infinitum as a basis to comprehend, shape, and adapt to an unfolding, evolving reality that remains uncertain, ever-changing, unpredictable.” 

Slide 34:


Slide 38 (final slide):

“If you lose, you’re losing at the game of survival and growth. The name of the game is to survive and grow.”


Boyd tells the story of the development of the F15.

He was asked to evaluate a new plane. He refused to turn in a written report – expecting it would be edited. He reported that he’d only prepared an oral report. Opens with, “I’ve never designed an airplane before, but I could fuck up and do better than this.”

He offered a better way forward, and the result was the F15.


“You’ve got to challenge all assumptions. … It’s doctrine on day 1. Every day after it’s dogma. … If you’ve got one doctrine, you’re a dinosaur. Period.”

Adding a quote from Boyd I really enjoyed (not from the Conceptual Spiral video):

“One day you will come to a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?” — John Boyd